After years of trying to close Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, German lawmakers will finally get their way next year. As The Washington Post reported earlier this month, “the last passenger is scheduled to depart in October 2008.”
There is a sad symbolism in the slow-motion shutdown of Tempelhof, hub of the airlift that saved Berlin’s western half from Stalin, set the tone for the Cold War and forged the transatlantic alliance. Turning Tempelhof into a museum marks more than the end of an era; it is a metaphor for how far apart Europe and America have drifted.
Triggered by Moscow's decision in June 1948 to blockade the overland corridors between the divided city of Berlin and western Germany, the Berlin Airlift officially marked the beginning of the Cold War and foreshadowed its ultimate outcome. Blending the principles of strategic bombing with the efficiency of a Detroit assembly line, Lt. Gen. Curtis LeMay crafted an air campaign unlike any in history. From June 1948 to September 1949, Allied pilots flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin. All told, 32,000 troops and 23,000 civilians participated in the mission, which the Americans called “Operation Vittles” and the British dubbed “Operation Plainfare.”
At the height of the airlift, Tempelhof was receiving coal- and food-laden planes every three minutes. As Air Force Magazine detailed in 1998, ground crews could unload a C-54 or C-47 cargo plane in just five minutes and have it back in the air in a half-hour, making the Herculean effort seem routine. Of course, it was anything but routine. According to Air Force Magazine, the airlift armada came under fire 123 times; and 77 men were killed during the mercy mission, including 31 Americans.
The airlift defined America for an entire generation of Europeans. During those 15 months, the United States showcased not just its military might, political resolve and seemingly boundless economic capacity, but a unique ability to bring all of these to bear in pursuit of its national interests. Just as important, the airlift awoke Europe and America to a new threat—a threat that surrounded Berlin and menaced the rest of Western Europe. It’s no coincidence that NATO was born as British and American cargo planes were streaming in and out of Berlin.
Fast-forward six decades. The Soviet empire has joined Stalin in the ash heap of history. Berlin is united. Germany is united. And Europe is united. But the transatlantic community is divided on a range of important issues. Some of these are reflected in the Transatlantic Trends survey, which was recently conducted by a consortium of research organizations on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps most importantly, the survey reveals that a significant majority of Europeans (57 percent) view US leadership in world affairs as “undesirable.” In fact, in only one European country (the Netherlands) is America’s leadership role viewed positively by a majority of those polled—and even then, it’s only 51 percent. That was certainly not the case during or after the Berlin Airlift.
Even though there is unity on terrorism—almost eight in ten Americans and almost seven in ten Europeans view the threat posed by terrorism as “extremely important”—there is obvious disagreement on how to defuse that threat. Just consider Europe’s lukewarm reaction and halfhearted role in Afghanistan, the very epicenter of the global jihad that has struck London and Madrid, Manhattan and Washington. Gen. James Jones, the American commander of NATO, has been reduced to begging for more troops from European governments, who have made good on just 85 percent of their pledges.
While Europeans and Americans express deep concerns about the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, they disagree on what to do about this looming threat. If (when?) diplomacy finally fails, 53 percent of the American public would support military action but less than a majority of Europeans would.
More than a third of Americans view China as a possible military threat—a reasonable conclusion, given the PRC’s recent war games in space and President Hu Jintao’s bellicose statements here on earth. But just 22 percent of Europeans share those concerns about the PRC. In fact, 2005 and 2006 saw key European governments push hard to lift the EU’s arms embargo against the PRC. After strong protests from Washington, they have stopped pushing (for now).
Finally, there is unity on less unity, which is to say that majorities in Europe and America support a loosening of transatlantic ties. According to the survey, the percentage of Europeans who view NATO as “essential to their country’s security has declined each year since 2002.” Today, it is just 55 percent. Plus, a growing majority of Europeans “support a more independent approach to security and diplomatic affairs between the United States and European Union.” And the percentage of Americans wanting closer relations with Europe has fallen from 60 percent in 2004 to 45 percent in 2006.
But is this gap between the Old World and the New World something new? Yes and no.
It pays to recall that Americans and Europeans deeply disliked one another in the 18th and 19th centuries. Barry Rubin of the Foreign Policy Research Institute argues that “the first clear statement of anti-Americanism” can be traced back to a most predictable source: France. According to Rubin, a French lawyer named Simon Linguet warned in the 1780s that “The dregs of Europe…would build a dreadful society in America, create a strong army, take over Europe and destroy civilization.”
France held the nascent American republic in such low regard that it demanded bribes from American diplomats seeking to negotiate with Paris. Likewise, a quarter-century after Americans drafted and ratified their Constitution, Britain was still flouting American sovereignty by seizing US ships and forcibly pressing their crews into service on British vessels.
Of course, this transatlantic antipathy flowed both ways. After all, America’s founders dismissed Europe as “the Old World”—old as in decaying and dying, broken and backward. President George Washington may have been oblique in his comments about the Old World, but his contempt for Europe and its ways bled through at the close of his presidency: “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation,” he explained during his farewell in 1796. “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”
Yet two world wars and a Cold War bound Europe and America together, forcing both sides of the Atlantic to recognize that they had more in common than in contrast.
Two key dates in history changed that. Both are known as “9/11.” For Europeans “9/11” is the ninth day of November—the day the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War officially ended, the day Europe shook off all the baggage of history and began its great unification experiment, the day Europe came to a collective conclusion that conflict and mortal threat were a thing of the past. British historian Niall Ferguson has called November 9, 1989, “the real historic turning point” for Europeans.
It was also significant for Americans, of course. After all, the US had waged the Cold War at great peril and price for the better part of 50 years. But as the lone superpower, the US could not celebrate the end of ideological conflict or the end of history. That became abundantly clear on another “9/11”—September 11, 2001—the day the towers came down and bin Laden’s global guerilla war on America moved from the periphery to the homeland.
America responded to its 9/11 by going first to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. Most Europeans—and a number of amnesiac US congressmen—fail to see the connection. But it is there. In fact, it is the same sort of connection that linked Europe’s appeasement at Munich to America’s prosecution of the Cold War: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not plan or hatch 9/11, but 9/11 taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his successors in Berlin, Korea and Cuba.
As we gaze across this growing gap, Tempelhof should remind Europeans that America is a force for good in the world—and that force is sometimes necessary. And it should remind Americans that the transatlantic alliance is an important element of their own security. As Churchill warned in 1946, if America and Europe “become divided or falter in their duty, if these all-important years are allowed to slip away, then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all.”
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